Chelsea Carlson is a young woman on the rise. After a stint at Berklee College Of Music in Boston, she returned to her native New Jersey with a popular song, a JAM Award, and an eye toward expanding her reach beyond her Morris County environs. I recently caught up with Carlson to find out about her latest endeavors.
How did you initially start writing songs and performing?
I’ve been playing music for as long as I can remember. My family is very musical, and my parents’ love of rock was partially infused in my genes, and partially ingrained in my head due to them blasting Queen, Pink Floyd, Heart, and The Doors. I started playing music much like everyone else starts: in the school band.
But by the time middle school rolled around, I was already gearing towards having a rock band. A favorite memory of mine was at one of my piano recitals; I was second-to-last on the bill. As you read down the program, you saw what everyone was playing: Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky. And then, next to my name, “Green Day.” Yeah, I was that kid!
How would you describe your music?
It’s pretty hard. There is the music that I do, and the music that I hope to do; and there’s also the music that I write, and the music that I cover. When I was writing music primarily with an acoustic guitar, my music had a sound reminiscent of Grace Potter mixed with Alanis Morissette. Ever since my new keyboard entered the picture, people have told me I sound like Carole King.
Musically, I like to keep things simple, but vocally, I let it all out. I like to sing loud; I belt, I have a lot of grit, and honestly, I don’t think people expect me to sound the way I do. I look a lot like Taylor Swift, so when I walk out on stage with my acoustic guitar and blonde hair, most people expect me to turn around and start singing a happy little pop song and act all bubbly, when what they really end up with is something more like a female Robert Plant. It’s actually pretty funny to see their reactions sometimes, because I know my style is so far from what they think they’re going to get.
How did the JAM Award come about?
The Jersey Acoustic Music Awards were created four years ago to recognize original artists in the New Jersey music scene. I was nominated for “Top Female Performer,” “Top Indie/Pop/Rock EP/Single” for my song “Ain’t Done Yet,” and “Top New Female Act.” When they called my name as the winner of “Top New Female Act,” I was shocked. I literally don’t even remember what I said when I received my award, I need to watch the video to find out!
How does the writing process work for you?
There is no set guideline that I follow when I write songs. I can’t say that I’m a “lyrics-first” person or “melody-first” person. Every song I’ve written has come about in a different way. Most of my songs are written from personal experience, or the experiences of people I’m close to. Sometimes songs just sort of pop out of me. I don’t think about melody, chords, song form, it just happens.
How did the song “Ain’t Done Yet” come about?
I began writing this song when I found myself behind a piano thinking about my grandmother. She’s had a pretty unbelievable life, from growing up in the Yugoslavian countryside, to being put in a concentration camp, and eventually marrying my grandfather, an American solider, and moving to the U.S. to start our family. All my life, I’d thought her story would make a bestselling novel, or an awesome movie. But for some reason “song” never crossed my mind, until that moment. So began the saga of “Ain’t Done Yet.”
I spent the longest time writing this song. The subject matter was too close to my heart to settle on just any lyrics. I released it on my grandmother’s birthday, and played it to her at one of my gigs. Over the coming months, “Ain’t Done Yet” was my most requested song at shows, and every time I performed it, someone ended up bawling their eyes out.
A lot of professionals in the industry tell me that it’s way too long, and while you wouldn’t typically release a 7:30 song as a single, it was never my intention for “Ain’t Done Yet” to be your typical pop radio hit. It was my intention to share the incredible story of an incredible woman. You don’t look at my little grandma when she passes you at ShopRite and think she went through all that. I always thought the lyrics to the song were very specific to her life, and that while people might think it’s a touching story, they wouldn’t necessarily relate to it. But I was so wrong. On multiple occasions, people pull me aside after a set and tell me that it reminds them of their own grandparents.
What are your goals musically and professionally?
My goal is really to just keep doing what I love. A lot of people say that a career in the arts will never get you anywhere, but I don’t agree. It’s not always easy, but you can definitely get somewhere, and that’s what I plan to keep on doing. My ultimate goal, of course, is to get my music to as many people as I possibly can, whether that means I become a rock star, or I just have local success, I don’t really care. I just enjoy what I do and sharing it with those around me, and if that takes me to fame, that’s awesome.
You can find out more about Chelsea Carlson and her upcoming performances at chelseacarlsonmusic.com.